Author Archives: Kristin Sanders

WE WERE THERE: HER/LA’s Mothership Festival

HER/LA Mothership festival

Photo by Samantha Snitzer

On November 5th, 6th, and 7th, a group of two hundred women convened in Desert Hot Springs, California, for HER/LA’s Mothership, a queer, trans, and non-binary inclusive feminist festival for women. I attended Mothership with my childhood best friend, Chris Tsuyuki, with whom I’m writing this piece. For full transparency, I am white, and Chris is third-generation Japanese American. This year’s event was the second iteration of the festival—the first taking place in LA as a pop-up festival—so, as Chris points out, “it’s still growing and findings its audience and voice. If they can reach out to more POC feminists, this festival can probably grow into something that really feels like it’s for all of us.”

Chris and I camped Friday and Saturday nights, beside Camp Beaverton, the lesbian Burning Man camp. The camping spot was an open space behind Sam’s Family Spa and Hot Water Resort—essentially a trailer/RV park with three mineral pools—which meant we had electricity, potable water, toilets, and showers. A hundred or so camping tents surrounded four festival tents, where various workshops and activities were held throughout the weekend. The most popular event was “How to Drive a Vulva,” a presentation by sex educator Allison Moon, who was so energetic, intelligent, hilarious, and queer- and trans-inclusive that you could feel the positive energy vibrating through the room. If only everyone—specifically teens—could have access to such powerful sex education, where the focus is on feeling healthy about your sexuality, asking for and giving consent, communicating your needs during sexual activities, advocating for your own pleasure, and using safe sex practices. It always feels so important to hear someone talk about sex, bodies, and desire in healthy ways, and even for this audience of twenty- and thirty-somethings, it felt like Moon’s sex-positivity was something we all needed to hear.

Another popular event was the panel “Women’s Sexuality in the Media,” hosted by former editor-in-chief of AfterEllen Trish Bendix, with writer and actress Alexandra Roxo, artist and creator of the male-nipple sticker Micol Hebron, “Bye Felipe” creator Alexandra Tweten, and writer and actress Mel Shimkovitz. The panelists, acknowledging how white the panel was (Bendix reported that some panelists had cancelled), talked about working in the media, art, and film industries. It was an interesting glimpse into those worlds, though the one-hour time constraint meant we couldn’t get into a very deep or political discussion.

Chris and I, knowing we would write about Mothership for Weird Sister, observed the festival with a critical eye. We thought about white feminism. We talked with some women from London about Brexit and our upcoming election. We talked with some straight women who felt a bit left out for being straight at what felt like a mostly queer event. We thought about how different it was to be with only female-identified people for the weekend, how safe it felt, how the male gaze was absent; in its place were a lot of women walking around with bare chests—but no feeling of being just a pretty object. There were, of course, many beautiful women, with all manner of gender representation, all of whom seemed to feel comfortable in their own skin. From Chris’ perspective: “I don’t know if this comfort in one’s own skin is special in the greater scheme of things, or just a special first experience for me, but not only by removing the male gaze and not having our bodies hypersexualized, I felt comfortable in a way I never have. Just the women letting it all hang out. It’s the first time I’ve sat (in the dirt) and not even thought about sucking my stomach in. I saw such a diversity in body types and a celebration of the beauty of our differences that I’ve never known before firsthand.”

The only men on the campground were the guys inside the Pie for the People foodtruck, a Joshua Tree pizzeria. When the breakfast food truck didn’t show up on Sunday morning, these guys made breakfast pizzas. They were friendly and chatty, yet respectful of the space HER/LA was creating. A caption on Mothership’s Instagram account sums it up well: “A love note for Pie for the People: We feel like you’ve become a part of our festival, we love you, we appreciate you, you’re delicious!”

On Saturday night, Chris and I drank cocktails mixed by Chelsea Vonchaz and Cherryl Warner, the founders of #HappyPeriod, a nonprofit providing menstrual hygiene kits to homeless people, which received, as a donation, a portion of the weekend’s proceeds. We danced to DJ Good Boy, LEX, and CLAY. We made new friends. We went to the creativity tent and put “CUNT” stickers on our faces and took pictures. We celebrated. We connected. And we got female-symbol tattoos by Hannah Uribe. It was a warm desert night so a bunch of us in the tattooing tent, including Uribe, took off our shirts, put stickers on our nipples, and got tattooed like goddamn fucking women.

And then, Tuesday happened.

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FROM THE STACKS: The Honesty of Jean Rhys

From the Stacks is a new series on Weird Sister wherein we pull a book—old, new, or anything in between—from our bookshelves, and write something about it.

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The Collected Novels of Jean Rhys

The Collected Novels of Jean Rhys #feministshelfie

I recently had a conversation with a man about Bukowski. Had I read much Bukowski? I said I’ve avoided a lot of the bro-writers: Bukowski, Burroughs, Miller, Kerouac (though I’ve come to love Kerouac). He said, Yeah, those guys are great writers, but, you know, they’re not really great toward women.

It’s not surprising we have a whole genre of literature by men who disrespect, objectify, reduce, and silence women. A more interesting question is, who are the women—especially the early women writers—of whom we might say the same: they aren’t really great toward men, you know, but they’re still worth reading.

I posed this question to a brilliant poet friend, who responded that while male writers are often being sexist when they write about women, women are often being honest. So the comparison doesn’t really work, she said, laughing. She then made some contemporary suggestions: Dodie Bellamy. Kathy Acker. Rebecca Solnit.

But what about going further back into the archives?

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FROM THE STACKS: Oriental Girls Desire Romance by Catherine Liu

From the Stacks is a new series on Weird Sister wherein we pull a book—old, new, or anything in between—from our bookshelves, and write something about it.

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Oriental Girls Desire Romance by Catherine Liu #feministshelfie

Oriental Girls Desire Romance by Catherine Liu was first published in 1998, then re-issued in 2012 by Kaya Press, which specializes in Asian Pacific Diasporas. This book fell into my lap at just the right time; my best friend, who worked with Liu at UC Irvine, mailed it to me. (Isn’t it always the surprise-gift books that seem so magical, so resonant?) Catherine Liu is a professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine, and she’s published a number of books of theory. I haven’t read her theory, but when I looked into her work a bit more, I found that this book didn’t receive the rave reviews I would have imagined. It seems to have been a little before its time, though I could see Oriental Girls Desire Romance fitting right in as an Emily Books pick today. The novel is poetic and not very plot-driven, with long, meandering prose detailing the thoughts of a unnamed young woman in New York City in the 80s. Through flashbacks, we come to understand that she has graduated from an Ivy League school, traveled to China to teach at a university for one semester, and returned to NYC, where she then begins graduate school in French and takes a lot of classes on theory. She dates men—a series of short, difficult relationships—and has one relationship with a woman during her last year of undergrad; what’s interesting is how little Liu dwells on this lesbian relationship. While the protagonist often interrogates her identity as a woman and as a Chinese-American, she does not contemplate the question of her sexuality. It seems she just momentarily fell in love with a woman, had some great sex, and then had her heart ripped out when she realizes it’s over. I really appreciated this nonchalance toward what is, essentially, a bisexual character, or what we could call, in today’s terms, a queer novel.

Liu’s protagonist deals with questions of identity, often trying to figure out “how to be a woman.” Recalling a childhood memory of playing chess with her brother, the memory quickly melds into an astute metaphoric observation:

“I said again that I hated the game and he said I was stupid. He told me I was just like a girl.

I did feel stupid. I felt just like a girl, though I had tried so hard not to be stupid, not to be like a girl.

I once overhead two students who looked like football players talking in the streets of our college town. One of them said to his friend, so she says to me, just like a girl she says, oh come on, let me suck your dick. Can you believe that?

I walked around the months saying, thinking, come on, oh come on, let me suck your dick. I was trying so hard not to be just like a girl, but it wasn’t working. Being a girl seemed to be about being tricked into playing games you couldn’t win and then being called stupid for it. Being a girl meant that you could be misrepresented and misquoted by a man in order to enhance his reputation. I was determined to find a way of being a girl that would get everyone back for such gross injustice. […]

Being a girl was beginning to feel more and more dangerous.” (22-23)

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Romance Novel Bibliotherapy

Romance Novels

Where can we turn when the world feels too painful to bear? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. For me, the answer is usually words: poetry, novels, interviews, quotations—all of language seems to have a healing power. Regarding Brexit, and its attendant xenophobia and racism, Joanna Walsh, fiction editor at 3:am Magazine, invited “publishers, writers, translators—people fighting, in their work, to keep our cultural borders open—to contribute a single sentence in reaction to what’s happening right now,” resulting in a powerful litany of “[a]nger, despair, protest, sorrow, love.” Bibliotherapy, the act of therapeutic reading, has a long history; Ceridwen Dovey’s New Yorker piece from 2015 titled “Can Reading Make You Happier?” finds that “Ancient Greeks […] inscribed above the entrance to a library in Thebes that this was a ‘healing place for the soul.’”

I’m traveling for the summer in South America. (Does travel make us feel better? Experiencing the world? Being in nature? I guess so, yes. But still: books.) I took one book with me—Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter—and it was stolen in LAX before my first flight. So I’ve switched to Kindle and Emily Books. As an experiment, I decided to open myself up to the highs and lows of the romance genre: If love heals, then I thought I’d try out, as they say, “trashy” romance novels, or “beach reads.” I suppose the only difference I’ve discovered between the “high art” of literary novels and the “lower art” of romance novels is twofold: 1) the self-publishing writers of the world need editors, badly, and 2) saccharine hope and happiness of “light” literature may be easy to generate and fluffy—but, as sentiments, they are still important, and even necessary.

I’m left wondering why we literary or intellectually-minded readers put down the whole genre of the romance novel when all it is, really, is another attempt to feel okay in the world.

I’ve read four romance-focused books in about as many days. It’s a way of hiding, of healing. Sometimes, I think it may be working. Here they are:

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Feminist Summer Reading List (or, Books I Wish High Schools Would Assign For Summer)

Action A Book About Sex - Feminist Reading List

I recently taught high school for two years at a private school in the South, and for two summers in a row I witnessed the school’s Summer Reading List: ten or eleven books total, from which the students could select one book to read over the summer and then discuss in a small group on their first day back to school in August. Both years, the list of books was predominately male-authored, with one or two books written by—or about—women.

Something about this really pisses me off. I’m going to assume that the high school at which I taught was not unique, and that the pattern is to teach/assign/read books by male authors in classrooms (and summer breaks) across the country. The longer we assume that “male” equals ”universal” and “female” equals ”specific,” the worse off our society will be. It would be beneficial for teenage boys to have to read a book by and about girls. It would be beneficial for teenage girls to see that their school values their experiences as valid, interesting, and important.

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Defining a Clit Lit Tradition: A Conversation with Elizabeth Hall

Elizabeth Hall

Elizabeth Hall (Via)

We need to start saying “clitoris” more. As Peggy Orenstein’s research in her new book Girls and Sex illustrates, we don’t focus enough in American society on female pleasure. We talk about consent, but not what comes after consent: patience, creativity, communication, orgasms, reciprocity, etc. Cis male pleasure is still prioritized. (Ann Friedman points out, in The Cut, that this isn’t just a young girl problem—it affects women of all ages.) Elizabeth Hall’s nonfiction book, I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris, just out from Tarpaulin Sky Press, is an unflinching contribution toward normalizing female pleasure and educating others on the full complexity of the clitoris. I wish I had read this book so much earlier in my life; it’s one of those ideas that seems so simple (a book about the clitoris!) that it’s unbelievable how long it has taken to be born into existence.

Elizabeth Hall uses bullet points to string together bits of information: historical facts, scientific research, female and male literary excerpts on the clit, and occasional first-person anecdotes. This is a slim book, easy to read in one day, though clearly the type of book you return to constantly or lend out to friends. Hall’s writing is smart, engaging, personal, political, and willing to take risks. Hall doesn’t hold back. I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris will give you courage and make you proud to have this complex, tiny nubbin of history, politics, and pleasure between your legs.  Continue reading

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